NEWS
19/01/2018 12:17 SAST | Updated 19/01/2018 12:25 SAST

#WaterCrisis: Drought Or National Government Failure?

How did the city of Cape Town get to this point, and who is to blame?

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Day Zero, when the water completely runs out in Cape Town, is now a foreseeable reality -- the city is now at a point of no return.

The municipality is scrambling to save water, restricting the usage limit to 50 litres per person per day for the next 150 days. How did the city get to this point, and who is to blame?

HuffPost asked two leading experts in the South African water sector, each of whom has very different theories: a total and systemic failure at a national level in the water sector, versus a harsh drought that caught everyone by surprise.

'A failure at national level – one that has been in the pipeline since 1994'

University of the Free State professor Anthony Turton said the water situation in Cape Town is failure of the entire water system in South Africa.

He said that, in 1994, at the dawn of democracy, the incoming government "in a fit of idealism" sought to alter various sectors, including water.

"We went from A to Z in one step. One of the critical changes that remains highly emotive is that water was nationalised. Next, the Constitution divided government into three tiers -- local government had to take bulk water supply and reticulate it -- and the Constitution made it clear that one tier of the government could not interfere in another."

Turton then explained the significance of this split.

"This resulted in a culture of impunity and a systemic failure from many municipalities to pay their water bills. The commission of inquiry into water -- which decades ago predicted exactly what is happening today -- was also discarded."

Turton said the blame is collective -- and that the blame game does not help anyway.

"Another issue has been the long and slow purging of skills from within government departments responsible for water. Each time we've restructured, the institutional links eventually got eroded and broken. This results in a total systemic failure in the water sector," he said.

"Right now, the population dynamics of Western Cape has also outstripped its water resources. This has been exacerbated by climate change, which is an accelerating factor rather than a cause."

'A rapid drought that caught everyone by surprise'

University of Cape Town's Dr Kevin Winter said one of the main causes of the current water situation in Cape Town is drought, the "rapid onset of which caught everyone by surprise".

"I don't think anybody could have predicted well-below-average rainfall in 2015 and 2016. There have been predictions back to 1966, but nothing like that which we are experiencing in Western Cape right now. In 2014, the dams were 80 percent full in Cape Town," he said.

Last year, researchers at UCT published an article that said 2017 was one of the driest years in recent decades – but that Cape Town's predicament wasn't caused by the low rainfall in 2017 alone.

"It's in trouble because 2017 followed two successive dry winters. Such severe multiyear droughts are very infrequent, occurring perhaps as rarely as once in a millennium. Water supply systems are not designed to withstand their impact," the article said.

With Day Zero expected sometime in April this year, the city has advanced its planning – with approximately 200 emergency water collection sites already assessed.

It will be announcing residents' local collection points from next week, so that communities can begin preparing for the eventuality.